Excerpt shared from NOAA website: A question and answer session with Florida fishermen on how to fish for cobia while protecting giant manta rays

Cobia swimming with a manta ray. FWC Photo

As cobia season gets underway in the Southeast U.S., NOAA Fisheries reached out to one of our best resources: our fishermen. We wanted to find out what they do or recommend to fish for cobia while protecting threatened giant manta rays. Understanding the challenges fishermen face helps NOAA biologists and fishery managers find a way to protect threatened and endangered species and still offer fishing opportunities.

Captain Butch Constable and Captain Ira Laks both helped us answer the following questions. Capt. Constable has been fishing offshore in Jupiter, Florida for more than 45 years. Capt. Laks has been a charter captain and commercial fisherman out of Palm Beach, Jupiter, and the Treasure Coast for more than 30 years. Both fishermen observe individual giant manta rays along the beaches of southeast Florida

We appreciate the input these captains provided when we asked questions about cobia fishing.

What time of year do you typically see manta rays arrive along Florida’s east coast?

Capt. Constable: The manta rays used to show up in March, sometimes as early as February in cold weather years, and stay through May. Manta rays would move up the coast as water warmed. However, now there are no manta rays any more off of Jupiter in the early springtime. Warmer water temps have caused a shift in species and now the giant manta rays seem to stay further north. These days no mantas seem to be found in the spring south of Hobe Sound. I discovered another large ray, the Roughtail stingray, often has cobia swimming alongside so I look for them when sight casting.

Capt. Laks: Most of the sight casting for cobia from Jupiter south is done around big sharks. The challenge with that kind of fishing is keeping a hooked cobia away from the shark so that it does not get eaten.

What are some of the best fishing techniques you use when fishing for cobia around manta rays?

Capt. Constable: The best advice is to practice and really have good casting skills from behind and to the side of manta ray. Do not cast in front of the manta ray. That way you can make a bad cast or two and reel in and recast without spooking the fish or hooking the ray.

Capt. Laks: I like to come up slowly and from the behind on either side of the manta and keep as much distance as possible to make a good cast. My best approach is with the winds behind me and the angler. That allows for a longer cast and it’s less likely to spook the manta with the boat. It also allows for several attempts in order to make that perfect cast to catch the cobia and not hook the ray.

Mantas with cobia in tow, observed in northeast Florida aerial survey affiliated with Georgia Aquarium.

Are there any specific tackle or lures you would recommend to reduce foul hooking manta rays but still are effective at catching cobia?

Capt. Constable: Single hooks! No reason to fish any sort of treble hook. Safer for angler when unhooking, safer for reducing snagging the ray. It would be good if a single hook series of baits and lures came out promoting cobia fishing in a responsible way. Also, anglers should use an oversize landing net and not a gaff for most cobia. Safer for fishermen and for cobia if kept or released.

Capt. Laks: I specialize in live bait fishing and use only single hooks. Treble hooks are not necessary when live bait fishing for cobia. A single hook reduces the chance of snagging a manta ray if a bad cast is made in front of the ray.

If a manta ray becomes foul hooked or snagged, what can fishermen do to reduce injury and trailing line?

Capt. Constable: I recommend moving the boat in front of the ray, reeling up the line and trying to pull the lure gently from that direction. The hook will often pull out of the fish and not leave the lure or trailing line. If not cut the line as close to the ray as possible.

Capt. Laks: I like to position the boat and move carefully as close as possible to the manta. Then I cut the line so as to leave the minimum amount of trailing line as possible.

Have you ever seen a hooked manta ray or a manta ray showing evidence of vessel interactions (e.g., prop scars or cuts)?

Capt. Constable: I have seen a few lures and jigs in rays but cannot recall prop scars or major injuries.

Capt. Laks: I have seen a few with larger scars but not sure the cause of those injuries.

What are some best practices for safe maneuvering your vessel around manta rays?

Capt. Constable: I believe approaching slowly and carefully from behind so that it allows the captain to position the boat in a safe way and not spook the ray or the fish. This gives anglers the time to set up their cast and when the fish is hooked, it will usually swim away from the ray at first. Cobia will sometimes try to return to the ray but if the boat is behind, you can often hold the fish away from the ray and land the fish safely and determine its size.

Capt. Laks: Do not set up in front of the ray. I recommend staying a distance away to allow the manta to stay calm and act normally. I can then set up to fish for cobia from behind and to the side of the animal.

Capt. Laks: I also wanted to remind anglers that just seeing one of these large and amazing creatures is a thrill all by itself. It is a fortunate part of an amazing day of fishing and the overall fishing experience.

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